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How to survive more than a 1000 years in business?

If a company is old, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s antiquated or out of date in any way. But it also doesn’t have to indicate its credibility. Actually, the age itself doesn’t present any value at all. However, we can suspect one thing – if a certain company managed to survive for a long time, it may mean that they’ve actually been doing something the right way.

Of course I’m not going to tell you how you can make your business last for centuries – I’d have to be a prophet or a charlatan to do this. Besides, who’s really interested in all those centuries? All we may expect is to make our business work well for us and to leave it in good condition for our children. We don’t care what will happen 5 or 10 generations later. We’ll be already gone, buried and forgotten (sorry for saying it so directly, but that’s just the truth).

Anyway, instead of advising, I’d like to do some analyzing. Let’s get a closer look on some examples of those businesses that are really, really old.

Does it matter whether a company is old or not?

I’m sure you’ve seen signs that said “Since 1xxx” right after the brand name. Of course it’s supposed to build trust and show that the company has great experience and knowledge. But can you actually name at least a few such brands? I mean name them right away, quickly?

Well, I couldn’t. At least not before doing some research. And I’m not the only one. People don’t pay much attention to such things nowadays. Of course it’s good for a company to be old enough to earn some trust and have a number of satisfied customers. This way if I ask a friend or Google the company, I’ll get some opinions. But that’s pretty much it. And today information is almost as fast as light, so getting to be known doesn’t take this much time as it used to.

Besides, who cares whether a company is 5 or 50 years old? We pay attention to the service, the quality, the products – not the age.

The overview

Jose CuervoAnyway, let’s finally start with something concrete. And to start small, let’s check out North America. Countries there are pretty young themselves, so we don’t expect any records. And maybe that’s why it’s quite impressive when we learn that in 1758 Jose Cuervo started producing tequila in Mexico and his business didn’t die. So it’s over 250 years old now. Not bad.

But traveling north, to USA, we can stop in Tuttle, New Hampshire. Why? Because that’s the place where the very same family has been collecting strawberries and vegetables for 11 generations now. So, when did they start? In 1635! It only 143 after Mr Columbus was so nice to “discover” America.

The old world

If we got such nice results in America than we should get even more impressive ones in the old world – Europe. And indeed, in Great Britain there once lived a man, who started a textile business. His name was John Brooke and it was in 1541, when he started “John Brooke & Sons”. But it didn’t end on the sons and Mr Brooke’s descendants dressed British soldiers of World War II. Unfortunately nowadays there’s only an office park of John Brooke’s name.

But if any of the said British soldiers found himself in Germany and wanted to spend a night in a classy hotel (right…), he could stop at the Hotel Pilgrim Haus in Soest. Why? Because any traveler could stop there since 1304! It’s over 700 years old – now that’s something!

Unfortunately, if we continue going east, we won’t find such oldies in Central or Eastern Europe. The history was quite turbulent there and no businessman from the middle ages really had a chance.

The absolute record

Ok, so far we got 700 years, which is pretty impressive, but the title says “more than 1000 years”. Where could we search for such old businesses? Something ancient comes in mind, like Rome, Greece or Egypt. Unfortunately those places are completely different from the ancient ones that went by the same names. No luck here…

What other culture is that old? Perhaps Chinese? That’s not where I’m leading you, but Asia is actually the right track. It’s Japan I’d like to speak about.

Before presenting the greatest record, let me answer one question, which is “Why are we to seek in Japan?”. Here are some numbers:

That’s why.

I mean if this doesn’t show you any potential, than I can’t imagine what would.

The leader is a company named Houshi Onsen from Komatsu. Since the year 718 (!) it runs in the very same place (north-east from Tokio) and does pretty much the same thing, which we call today “resorts & spa”.

But the fact that this company runs for almost 1300 years now (again: wow!) isn’t the only fun fact here. It’s even more interesting how the whole business started. It’s said that a monk (led by God himself) encountered a spring of hot water with curative properties. So he told his disciple to set a health resort there ;) Now that’s a really cute story, but it’s now the 46th generation that runs this business.

Kongo Gumi workers
Kongo Gumi workers, early 20th century

However, this is not the greatest record. At least not yet. So far the gold medal is in possession of Kongō Gumi. This Japanese construction company survived for 1428 years! Its history started in year 578, when Prince Shōtoku brought an engineer from Korea to build a Buddhist temple – Shitennō-ji. This was of course the Kongo family ancestor, who – after building the temple (that still stands there!) – stayed and started his business.

The company specialized in sacral buildings for centuries (but they also built a palace or a castle from time to time), though in the second half of the XIXth century it had to take up housing as well. And that was the beginning of its end. Kongo Gumi suddenly stopped being authoritative in its niche and got lost. Combining that with some bad decisions and… finally in 2006 the Takamatsu Corporation took over Kongo Gumi.

Enough of the history, where’s the recipe?

William O’Hara says in his book (”Centuries of Success”) that the thing that helps companies survive many centuries is simply… luck. And it’s hard to disagree.

However, we can also notice that those, who had this luck, also worked in “immortal industries”. I mean people always needed and will need to (at least for a long time) to eat, drink, dress themselves, live somewhere etc. These are surely the industries that make surviving long more probable.

And what’s the phenomenon of Japan? It’s mainly about tradition and the way of thinking. The Japanese value harmony as much as the income (or sometimes even more). Companies have their values and their employees have to respect them. This brings good quality services, good opinions, trust. It may not be a way of earning a lot in no time, but it surely helps to get regular customers, who will recommend a certain company to their friends. And that’s the best kind of advertising one could dream of.

Jose Cuervo photo source:
Kongo Gumi photo source:

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